What’s the big idea? Back in the day, this was the question I would ask when I felt unjustly wronged. Nowadays, a "big idea" refers to a key concept that is important to learning, and something that teachers help students to understand as the year progresses. Recently, the big idea in math learning that students are focusing on is that numbers represent quantities that can be decomposed into parts and wholes. Numbers can be represented in many ways: concretely with math toys, pictorially with diagrams, and symbolically using fractions, decimals, percentages, and the various number forms (standard, expanded, word).
In primary grades, students focus on learning about what numbers are, what they mean, and how to use them. JK students have been counting shapes on pumpkin faces while kindergarteners have been practicing how to subitize and form their numbers appropriately. Students in grade 1 are developing greater fluency with their numbers by using different strategies to add numbers and by playing games involving numbers to 10. Daily estimation games and fluency routines are performed in grade 2, and the grade 3s have been working on place value and addition skills for numbers up to the hundreds.
Intermediate students build upon their number sense by expanding into different operations, different symbolic representations, and how to apply numbers in problem-solving contexts. The grade 4s have been building greater fluency with addition, subtraction and multiplication methods. In grade 5, students practiced rounding, learned to expand their place value skills up to the millions, and expanded their repertoire of addition strategies. Numbers up to the billions have been a focus in grade 6; students also learned to multiply and divide amounts in the thousandths while simulating food purchasing scenarios. Our grade 7 students developed their financial literacy skills by learning to apply percentages while engaged in fictional online shopping activities.
One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is that I still ask what the big idea is when I don’t understand something. Teachers work to analyze the big ideas and determine what the most important concepts are for students to learn and understand. By incorporating these big ideas into classroom discussions and activities, students can gain a deeper understanding of mathematics and how to apply key concepts to overcome the many challenges life brings.